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former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Arms Control Today

India Tests Missile Capable of Reaching China

December 2021
By Kelsey Davenport

India successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in an apparent effort to signal advances in its nuclear deterrent to China.

India in October tested an Agni-5 intercontinental ballistic missile, similar to the one shown here, in an apparent signal to China. (Photo by Pallava Bagla/Corbis via Getty Images)The Agni-5 ballistic missile is capable of striking targets at ranges up to 5,000 kilometers with a “very high degree of accuracy,” according to an Oct. 27 statement from the Indian Ministry of Defence. The launch was conducted from India’s test site on APJ Abdul Kalam Island.

The missile, a three-stage, solid-fueled system launched from a canister, was last tested in 2018. Although ICBMs are typically defined as having a range of 5,500 kilometers or more, independent assessments put the full range of the Agni-5 at 8,000 kilometers with a 1.5-ton warhead. The solid-fueled, canister-launch configuration makes the Agni-5 more mobile and allows for the system to be fired more quickly.

The Oct. 27 launch differed from five prior tests of the Agni-5 in that the missile was launched in full operational configuration by the military’s Strategic Forces Command. This was also the first time that the system was launched at night.

The Defence Ministry statement said the Agni-5 launch was in line with India’s policy of “credible minimum deterrence,” which means that the country will develop only the nuclear weapons capabilities needed to deter adversaries.

India is already capable of striking the entire territory of its neighboring adversary, Pakistan. New Delhi’s pursuit of longer-range systems, such as the Agni-5, and its development of submarine-launched ballistic missiles are oriented at China, which is expanding its own nuclear arsenal and has developed a larger missile force.

Several Indian media outlets quoted unnamed officials as saying that the test was meant to signal India’s military capabilities to China as a border dispute between the two countries continues to inflame tensions.

Although the Defence Ministry statement did not directly reference China, spokesperson Lt. Col. Abhinav Navneet tweeted on Oct. 28 that the Agni-5 is “capable of neutralizing targets threatening India’s Sovereignty & Territorial Integrity.”

China did not respond to the launch, but when India announced plans to test the Agni-5, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on Sept. 16 that UN Security Council Resolution 1172 “has clear stipulations” regarding India’s development of ballistic missiles and that Beijing hopes all parties will make constructive efforts to maintain peace, security, and stability in South Asia.

Resolution 1172 was adopted by the Security Council in 1998 following the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan. The resolution includes nonbinding language calling on the two countries to “cease development of ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.”

In addition to developing longer-range systems, India is considering creating a new rocket force to oversee and control the country’s missile forces.

Gen. Bipin Rawat, chief of the defense staff, said on Sept. 16 that the rocket force is a part of India’s effort to adopt a “whole-of-government approach” to dealing with evolving security challenges. A rocket force would help integrate forces and dual-use infrastructure, he said. Rawat cited China’s aggression and its use of Pakistan as a proxy as necessitating the changes. China created its own rocket force in 2016.

India successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in an apparent effort to signal advances in its nuclear deterrent to China.

Defense Department Reorganizes Amid NPR

December 2021
By Shannon Bugos

The Defense Department is planning to eliminate the position held by the senior official who was overseeing the Biden administration’s review of U.S. nuclear policy, which is slated to be released in January 2022.

Richard Johnson, deputy assistant secretary of defense for countering weapons of mass destruction, also took over as acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense to oversee the Biden administration's Nuclear Policy Review after the woman who held the job was removed in a Defense Department reorganization.  (Photo by U.S. Department of Defense)Leonor Tomero was sworn in as deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy in January. (See ACT, April 2021.) Previously, she was counsel for the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, focusing on issues such as nuclear deterrence, disarmament, and nonproliferation.

The administration formally began the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) in July with Tomero, who was open to reassessing the U.S. nuclear force structure and modernization plans, leading the process. (See ACT, September 2021.)

Politico reported on Sept. 21 that Tomero’s post was destined for elimination at the end of the month and that the Pentagon’s new assistant secretary for space would absorb the position’s responsibilities.

“It’s natural with any new administration, this one’s not excepted, that we would want to reevaluate the organizational structure and make changes where we think is appropriate to support the secretary’s priorities,” said Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby when asked about the situation the following day.

Kirby emphasized that the administration would “continue to consider and include a wide range of viewpoints” in the NPR.

Following Tomero’s departure, the responsibility of overseeing the NPR fell to Richard Johnson, deputy assistant secretary of defense for countering weapons of mass destruction, who also became the acting official in the role.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) wrote a Sept. 24 letter to President Joe Biden expressing concern about Tomero’s departure amid the ongoing NPR process.

“I am…concerned that the sudden departure of a top appointee, charged with presenting you options on the future of the U.S. nuclear weapons enterprise, will result in a draft Nuclear Posture Review that reflects the Cold War era’s overreliance on nuclear weapons, rather than your lifetime of work championing policies that reduce nuclear weapons risks,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, Politico, citing an unnamed White House official, reported on Nov. 5 that the National Security Council would convene a high-level meeting on nuclear declaratory policy by the end of the month to consider the option of shifting the United States to a sole-purpose or no-first-use nuclear policy.

The Financial Times reported on Oct. 29 that U.S. allies, including Australia, France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom, are lobbying Biden to refrain from changing current U.S. policy, which is ambiguous regarding the precise conditions under which Washington would consider using nuclear weapons.

On the 2020 presidential campaign trail, Biden said in a questionnaire from the Council for a Livable World that the United States should review its nuclear declaratory policy.

Near the end of the Obama administration in 2017, Biden, then vice president, expressed his belief that “the sole purpose of our nuclear arsenal is to deter and, if necessary, retaliate for a nuclear attack against the United States and its allies.”

The Defense Department is planning to eliminate the position held by the senior official who was overseeing the Biden administration’s review of U.S. nuclear policy.

Lawmakers Pressure Biden to Waive India Sanctions

December 2021

Members of Congress are urging the Biden administration to waive potential sanctions on India, considered a key U.S. strategic partner in the competition against China, for purchasing Russian air defense systems.

India faces U.S. sanctions as a result of its decision to purchase S-400 missile defense systems from Russia. This one was used during a Russian military exercise in July 2021 near the village of Plotnikovo. (Photo by Kirill Kukhmar\TASS via Getty Images)On Oct. 26, Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) asked President Joe Biden in a letter not to impose the sanctions that are required under Section 231 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The law, signed by President Donald Trump in 2017, imposes sanctions on countries engaging in certain transactions with Iran, North Korea, and Russia.

Cornyn and Warner wrote that waiving the sanctions was a “national security imperative” that would “reinforce India’s status as a Major Defense Partner” and “provide another avenue to counter [Chinese] influence in the Indo-Pacific” region.

Three days later, Republican Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas), Todd Young (Ind.), and Roger Marshall (Kan.) introduced a bill that would shield Australia, India, and Japan from CAATSA sanctions as members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. The dialogue, which includes the United States, was established in 2007 to counter China’s growing power.

In a statement, Cruz insisted that “now would be exactly the wrong time” for sanctions against India because they would “do nothing except undermin[e] our shared security goals of combatting China’s aggression and forcing India to become dependent on Russia.”

India agreed to purchase five batteries of S-400 systems, valued at $5.4 billion, from Russia in 2018. (See ACT, November 2018.) Since 1961, Russia has been the largest overall provider of weapons to India.

During a visit to New Delhi in October, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told reporters the United States has “been quite public about any country that decides to use the S-400.” She called such purchases “dangerous and not in anybody’s security interest.”

Under CAATSA, the president must either impose sanctions on offenders or submit a waiver to Congress explaining how sanctions would harm national security. U.S. allies and strategic partners are not exempt. In December 2020, the United States, citing security concerns, imposed CAATSA sanctions on Turkey, a NATO ally, for its S-400 purchases from Russia. (See ACT, January/February 2018.) Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in September that Turkey has not ruled out buying additional S-400 systems.—WILLIAM OSTERMEYER

Lawmakers Pressure Biden to Waive India Sanctions

Russia, U.S. Adhere to New START Limits

December 2021

Russia and the United States are continuing to adhere to the limits on their strategic nuclear arsenals established by the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) as the two countries engage in a dialogue on the future of arms control.

Under New START, Moscow and Washington exchange data twice a year to confirm that they are complying with the cap of 1,550 nuclear warheads deployed on 700 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and heavy bombers. The treaty also limits deployed and nondeployed heavy bombers and launchers for ICBMs and SLBMs to 800.

As of Sept. 1, the United States has 1,389 warheads deployed on 665 delivery vehicles, while maintaining 800 deployed and nondeployed ICBM and SLBM launchers and heavy bombers. Russia has 1,458 warheads deployed on 527 delivery vehicles, in addition to 742 deployed and nondeployed ICBM and SLBM launchers and heavy bombers.

Since the treaty’s implementation in February 2018, the number of deployed nuclear warheads in each country has fluctuated roughly between 1,300 and 1,450.

This latest data exchange came as the United States and Russia hold discussions within their bilateral strategic stability dialogue on the future of arms control after New START expires in 2026. The two sides last met at the end of September. (See ACT, November 2021.)

The Biden administration’s goal is to hold the third round of the dialogue since the start of the administration by the end of the year.

The dialogue is separate from more formal negotiations on an arms control agreement that could follow New START, but the Biden administration has yet to establish a timeline for transitioning the dialogue into a negotiation with Moscow.

Meanwhile, treaty inspections that had been paused since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic were scheduled to restart on Nov. 1, according to an October statement from the U.S. Defense Department. Asked for comment by Arms Control Today on Nov. 15, the State Department suggested that inspections have not resumed.

“The United States is currently exploring measures for resuming inspections while mitigating the risks to U.S. and Russian personnel,” said a State Department spokesperson.

The inspections are intended to confirm the information contained in the biannual data exchanges.

Russia, U.S. Adhere to New START Limits

Countries Grapple With 2025 Landmine Goal

December 2021

Aware of the continued threat from anti-personnel landmines in many parts of the world, states-parties to the Mine Ban Treaty again granted extensions to countries that still need to clear contaminated land. The action was taken at the treaty’s annual conference on Nov. 15–19, held virtually from The Hague.

Delegates to the Mine Ban Treaty annual conference watch video of athletes wounded by landmines. The meeting was held Nov. 15-19 at The Hague. (Photo by Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands)At the treaty’s 2019 review conference, members set the global goal of completing landmine clearance by 2025. Despite that aspiration, the Mine Action Review found that the majority of contaminated countries are not on track to meet their national deadlines, some of which already extend beyond 2025. Under the treaty, countries have 10 years to clear areas contaminated by landmines, but may seek extensions that set new deadlines.

States-parties granted treaty-compliant extension requests to Cyprus, Congo, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Nigeria, Somalia, and Turkey. They “expressed serious concern” that Eritrea remained in noncompliance by not requesting an extension to its 2020 deadline.

On the positive side, the Mine Action Review found that more than 159 square kilometers of land was cleared of landmines in 2020, the highest worldwide total since 2015. The Landmine Monitor noted that financial contributions to support clearance and other mine action activities was 6 percent higher in 2016–2020 than during the previous five-year period, and international support in 2020 totaled $565 million, a small increase over 2019.

The Landmine Monitor also reported more than 7,000 casualties from landmines and other explosive remnants of war in 2020, a sixth year of high annual totals. Nearly 1,500 of those casualties were in Afghanistan, where the Taliban takeover is disrupting internationally supported clearance efforts.

The United States, the world’s largest financial contributor to mine clearance, attended the annual meeting as an observer, as it has done since 2009. In 2020, President Donald Trump renounced the Obama-era policy to someday accede to the treaty. In April, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said President Joe Biden “intends to roll back this [Trump] policy, and our administration has begun a policy review to do just that." A State Department official confirmed to Arms Control Today via email on Nov. 18 that the review is ongoing.—JEFF ABRAMSON

Countries Grapple With 2025 Landmine Goal

NATO Concludes Annual Nuclear Exercise

December 2021

NATO has wrapped up its annual week-long nuclear deterrence exercise, called Steadfast Noon, across southern Europe with aircraft and personnel from 14 allied countries.

“The exercise is a routine, recurring training activity, and it is not linked to any current world events,” NATO said in a statement on Oct. 18 as the exercise began. “This exercise helps to ensure that NATO’s nuclear deterrent remains safe, secure, and effective.”

A different NATO country hosts Steadfast Noon each year.The alliance normally does not identify the host country, with the exception of last year when NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg publicly visited Volkel Air Base in the Netherlands, the main operating base for the exercise. (See ACT, December 2020.)

Hans Kristensen from the Federation of American Scientists determined that the 2021 exercise was likely hosted by Italy out of Ghedi and Aviano air bases, which are home to an estimated 15 and 20 U.S. B61-3/-4 gravity bombs, respectively. Another 65 B61-3/-4 bombs are believed to be deployed in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and Turkey.

The United States is developing the more accurate B61-12, which will replace all existing gravity bombs and is scheduled to have the first production unit completed in late 2021. Belgium, Italy, and the Netherlands are in the process of acquiring the new F-35A fighter jet, which conducted in September its final flight test to complete the nuclear design certification process and ensure compatibility with the B61-12. (See ACT, November 2021.)

“The combination of the F-35A and B61-12 represent a significant improvement of the military capability of the NATO dual-capable aircraft posture in Europe,” Kristensen wrote in an Oct. 20 blog post.

Steadfast Noon is designed so NATO can practice and assess its nuclear capabilities deployed in Europe. The aircraft do not carry live bombs during the exercise flights.

This year’s exercise occurred during NATO’s defense ministerial meetings, which started Oct 21. “NATO’s goal is a world without nuclear weapons,” said Stoltenberg ahead of the meetings. Yet, “a world where Russia, China, and other countries like North Korea have nuclear weapons, but NATO does not, is simply not a safer world.”

NATO Concludes Annual Nuclear Exercise

Toward a Successful NPT Review

November 2021
By Daryl G. Kimball

Twenty-six years ago, as states-parties negotiated the terms for the extension of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the future of the treaty was not assured.

UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson opens the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York on April 27, 2015. (Photo: United Nations)Yet at the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, the world came together, committed to the “complete elimination of nuclear weapons,” and endorsed specific disarmament actions that led to the indefinite extension of this bedrock agreement to reduce the nuclear danger. Additional commitments were made at the 2000 and 2010 review conferences to advance implementation and compliance with all three pillars of the treaty.

But since at least 2010, the nuclear disarmament process has stalled; and the five NPT nuclear-armed states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) cannot credibly claim they are meeting their NPT Article VI disarmament obligations.

NPT states-parties at the 10th review conference, set for Jan. 2–28, will need to come together on many key issues, including strengthening nuclear safeguards and addressing regional proliferation issues. But the success of this pivotal meeting will hinge, more than anything, on whether and how they can develop an updated, disarmament action plan.

Tensions among the world’s nuclear-armed states are rising, the risk of nuclear use is growing, and hundreds of billions of dollars are being spent to replace and upgrade nuclear arsenals. To varying degrees, the nuclear-armed states are engaged in a qualitative arms race.

In February, at the last moment, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin extended the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) through 2025. In July, they relaunched a dialogue that could evolve into nuclear disarmament talks. But if they fail to promptly conclude new agreements that limit offensive nuclear weapons and strategic missile interceptors, there will be no legally binding constraints on the world’s two largest arsenals.

Meanwhile, China, France, and the UK are not part of any serious nuclear disarmament discussion; and there is growing evidence that China is preparing to double or triple its long-range, nuclear-armed ballistic missile force.

Due to the growing nuclear disarmament deficit, the NPT regime is once again at a crossroads.

All states need to approach the next NPT review conference with a sense of urgency, a spirit of cooperation, and a determination to produce meaningful results that transcend old fault lines.

Some NPT nuclear-armed states may bemoan the fact that the environment for disarmament progress is “challenging.” We can expect they will continue to claim that many past NPT commitments on disarmament have been overtaken by events. Disarmament progress has never been simple or easy, but such deflections are irresponsible.

Instead, the five nuclear-armed NPT states should acknowledge their past disarmament commitments, work with other states-parties on a pragmatic action plan that sets new benchmarks and deadlines, and pledge to act with the urgency that the grave nuclear weapons threat demands.

To create a more constructive atmosphere, these five states must refrain from further specious attacks against the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and its many supporters. They should acknowledge that the TPNW exists and that supporters consider it to be a contribution to meeting NPT Article VI obligations.

Notwithstanding the different views on how to fulfill those obligations, nuclear-armed and non-nuclear-weapon states should cooperate on a serious disarmament action plan that could include the key elements below.

  • A call for the United States and Russia to conclude talks on New START follow-on agreements that achieve further cuts in nuclear warheads and delivery systems no later than 2025.
  • A pledge by the five NPT nuclear-armed states to freeze the size of their nuclear arsenals and by all states to halt the production of fissile material for military purposes.
  • A call for NPT states to begin disarmament talks in a bilateral or a multilateral format no later than 2025.
  • A call for the remaining holdout states to initiate their respective processes to ratify the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by 2025.
  • A call for all states to forswear the introduction of nuclear-armed cruise and hypersonic missiles.
  • A recognition that any use of nuclear weapons would produce catastrophic humanitarian consequences and that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

In the absence of coherent and constructive leadership from the nuclear-weapon states, other responsible NPT states-parties need to fill the void to achieve a good NPT conference outcome.

Germany, Kazakhstan, Sweden, and others have made strides toward a common framework on the next steps on nuclear disarmament. Leaders of the humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons and the Non-Aligned Movement also have a role to play.

Now is the time to bolster the NPT's disarmament pillar.

Twenty-six years ago, at the 1995 review conference on the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the future of the treaty was not asssured. But the states-parties committed to the “complete elimination of nuclear weapons” and endorsed specific disarmament actions that led to the indefinite extension of this treaty. But since at least 2010, the nuclear disarmament process has stalled, and the NPT regime is once again at a crossroads.

The Australia-UK-U.S. Submarine Deal: Not Necessarily a Sure or a Good Thing

November 2021
By Trevor Findlay

In June 1987, Canada announced that it intended to build 10 to 12 nuclear-powered submarines, based on a French or UK design and fueled with highly enriched uranium (HEU) possibly of Canadian origin. Faced with insurmountable strategic, political, financial, logistical, and nonproliferation obstacles, the idea sank without trace within two years.1 Although the Australian nuclear-powered submarine proposal, announced 34 years later on September 16, is different in several respects, it faces equally strong headwinds that may deliver the same result.

A Royal Australian Navy diesel and electric-powered Collins Class submarine sits in Sydney Harbour in 2016. That naval weapon is to be replaced by nuclear-powered submarines that the United Kingdom and the United States recently agreed to provide Australia as part of the new AUKUS defense cooperation announcement. (Photo by Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images)Much about the Australian project is speculative. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, U.S. President Joe Biden, and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson simply released a one-page statement launching “an enhanced trilateral security partnership” called AUKUS aimed at fostering “deeper integration of…security and defense-related science, technology, industrial bases, and supply chains.”2 The headline-grabbing item was the announcement of a trilateral effort to support Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines, beginning with an 18-month study to seek “an optimal pathway to deliver this capability.” No numbers were announced, no likely design was suggested, and no nuclear fuel type or acquisition plan was outlined. Although all three partners committed themselves to “the highest standards for safeguards, transparency, verification, and accountancy measures to ensure the non-proliferation, safety and security of nuclear material and technology,” the length of this list alone suggests that complex and profound questions arise not just for the three governments, but for the international community, particularly the global regime governing the use of nuclear energy.

Knowns and Unknowns

At this stage, the unknowns of the project are Rumsfeld-esque in their tortuousness and interrelatedness. Yet, there are some knowns or likely knowns to guide preliminary analysis.

First, for parochial political reasons, the submarines must be built in Australia for the most part, specifically in Adelaide, in the state of South Australia. Australia’s conventionally powered submarines have been built there for decades, resulting in a skilled, specialized workforce. One of the smallest and economically challenged of Australia’s states but electorally important, South Australia has relied on government-funded projects to boost employment and capacity in its industrial sector. The joint project with France to produce conventionally powered submarines that was unceremoniously cancelled seemingly minutes before the AUKUS announcement, required 50 percent Australian “content,” down from the originally expected 75 percent. Australia’s purchase of U.S. or UK submarines off the shelf, as some have suggested, would seem politically untenable.

A second known factor is that Australia cannot produce enriched uranium itself whether low-enriched or highly enriched, for submarine propulsion or any other purpose, despite having among the largest deposits of uranium in the world. It does not have the industrial, technical, or financial capacity or political license to build and operate a standard gas-centrifuge plant. Australia sold off its domestically invented SILEX laser-enrichment technology to the United States two decades ago.3 In any case, Australian federal law prohibits uranium enrichment in the country. Enriched uranium for submarines would need to be imported.

A third certainty is that Australia does not have any current or likely future capacity to build a nuclear reactor, especially for submarine propulsion. Unlike Canada, which developed and operates CANDU reactors, Australia has no experience with nuclear reactors beyond research units based at Lucas Heights in Sydney. The latest model, devoted largely to producing medical radioisotopes, was imported from Argentina. Therefore, Australia would need to buy the reactor and its fuel from the United Kingdom or the United States. If HEU is chosen, the reactors will contain “lifetime cores,” which will operate for around 30 years and require no refueling, a much prized characteristic of HEU-powered vessels. The sealed reactors would presumably be transported by ship to Adelaide to be encased in the submarine hulls and returned to the provider at the end of the submarines’ lifetime for dismantlement and disposition of the spent fuel.

A final important area of clarity is that Australia is seeking to arm its submarines with conventional weapons, presumably sea-launched cruise missiles, not nuclear weapons. For decades, Australia has been a dedicated supporter of the nuclear nonproliferation regime and more recently of the global nuclear security architecture. After initial reservations, Australia signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in February 1970, just before it entered into force, and ratified it in 1973. It has subsequently become one of the strongest champions of the treaty and of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its safeguards system.

Australia not only has a comprehensive safeguards agreement as required by the NPT, but also imposes bilateral safeguards on Australian-origin uranium exports. It was the first country to sign an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement and was the first to receive the so-called broader conclusion, indicating that it has accounted for all nuclear material subject to safeguards in its territory. Australia was instrumental in negotiations on the 1985 Treaty of Rarotonga, which created a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the South Pacific. It is also an active member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and other export control arrangements.

In the nuclear security realm, Australia’s track record is also impressive. It is party to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and its 2005 amendment, along with all other nuclear governance conventions. It has consistently been rated number one by the Nuclear Threat Initiative in the annual Nuclear Security Index and has enthusiastically contributed to continuing efforts to strengthen nuclear security resulting from the four nuclear security summits between 2010 and 2016.

One might imagine, then, that if any country were to become the first non-nuclear-weapon state to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, Australia’s would be the safest pair of hands. Indeed, some have argued that Australia could use its submarine acquisition plan to strengthen global nuclear governance. Better Canberra than Brasilia or, at worst, Tehran. Even so, the implications for the nonproliferation regime are far-reaching, overlapping, and complex.

Disturbing the Nonproliferation Zeitgeist

The NPT and the collection of other treaties, arrangements, and organizations that compose the nonproliferation regime do not exist in a vacuum, but are profoundly affected by states’ attitudes, perceptions, and actions. As a nonproliferation “white knight,” Australia’s announcement that it is considering acquiring nuclear-powered submarines in partnership with two nuclear-weapon states portends a further roiling of the political atmosphere around a regime that is already being buffeted by numerous gales. The worst of those include the ongoing noncompliance cases of Iran and North Korea; the absence of India, Israel, and Pakistan from the NPT; the continuing nonfulfillment of undertakings by the nuclear-weapon states-parties to the NPT to achieve nuclear disarmament; the modernization and expansion programs of almost all of the states with nuclear weapons; the decades-long lack of progress at the Conference on Disarmament, especially in negotiating a fissile material cutoff treaty; and the non-entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The AUKUS submarine proposal will undoubtedly be added to this litany of woes at the 10th NPT review conference, originally scheduled for 2020 but now deferred to 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is not that anyone suspects Australia of seeking nuclear weapons through the backdoor of nuclear submarine propulsion, but rather that the idea reeks of the hypocrisy that has always plagued a regime built on the premise of a more or less eternal divide between nuclear haves and have-nots. Unlike the IAEA Statute, which envisaged no military use of nuclear material, the NPT carved out an exception for non-explosive military use, apparently at the suggestion of Italy, with U.S. and Soviet acquiescence.

The United States nonetheless has consistently refused to provide nuclear-propulsion technology to non-nuclear-weapon states, including to allies such as Canada, South Korea, and reportedly Japan, due to proliferation concerns. It has now made an exception for Australia as an exclusive member of the “Anglosphere,” whatever that means for three increasingly multicultural societies. Australia itself carved out an exception to its policy of not supplying uranium to non-NPT parties by doing a deal with India, a state with nuclear weapons that from the outset sought to undermine the treaty. The constant chipping away at the fundamentals of the nonproliferation regime, especially by erstwhile champions, can only increase cynicism and undermine confidence in its longevity.

Setting Unsettling Precedents

If the AUKUS project is realized and assuming that Brazil, which is building its own nuclear-powered submarines, does not get there first, Australia will become the first non-nuclear-weapon state to acquire a nuclear-powered submarine. The precedent will be set, paving the way for other states to demand similar capability, either as a legitimate defense asset or as cover for more alarming nuclear ambitions, such as nuclear weapons development. Unlike Australia, some of the states that have expressed interest in nuclear-powered submarines, including Brazil and South Korea, also wish to enrich their own fuel. Exhibit A on this list is Iran, which has long argued implausibly that it needs to enrich its own uranium for peaceful purposes, notably its Tehran Research Reactor and Bushehr nuclear power plant, currently supplied by Russia, but has now added nuclear-powered submarines to its list.

Australia would set another precedent by becoming the first state to take advantage of the “loophole” in comprehensive safeguards agreements that permits nuclear material for a non-explosive military purpose to be removed from safeguards for the duration of that use. If Australia chooses the military-to-military option whereby the reactor and its HEU fuel are supplied by the U.S. or UK navies and returned to their control when the submarine is decommissioned, it might be assumed that there will be no requirement for removal or reapplication of safeguards because the material will originate from, remain in, and return to military use. Yet, allowing a non-nuclear-weapon state to import HEU outside of safeguards in this manner would make a mockery of the entire nonproliferation regime.

Fortunately, Australia’s safeguards agreement, like all others, requires that it notify the IAEA of its intention to acquire nuclear material for a non-explosive military purpose and help devise suitable verification arrangements with the IAEA to ensure that the material is not diverted to nuclear weapons. In working with the IAEA on this challenging task, Australia would be setting a precedent, for good or ill, that other states will be able to exploit. The sensitivity of the technology and the inaccessibility of the reactor to inspectors preclude a traditional approach. Instead, new approaches and methods will have to be devised to satisfy the IAEA that no diversion of nuclear material to weapons purposes takes place, while protecting confidential, proliferation-sensitive information .

Australia has already notified IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi of its intentions and signaled its willingness to work with the agency, presumably along with the United States and the UK, to craft suitable arrangements. Grossi has responded publicly by noting that verification will be “very tricky.”4 For Australia itself, the situation may become even trickier. Under the strengthened safeguards system that Australia has long championed, the IAEA accords a state the broader conclusion when it is able to certify that, based on the information available to it, it has accounted for all nuclear material within the state. Just how this conclusion could be reached after Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines have begun operating, especially at sea, is unknown. Australia has insisted that the IAEA should not automatically reissue the broader conclusion for states without reassessing their current circumstances, as occurred for Libya when civil war prevented the agency from ensuring the continuity of safeguards in its territory. Australian officials will undoubtedly work in good faith with the IAEA to craft an effective arrangement to ensure verifiability to the extent possible, but there is an element of moral hazard for Australia. It may succeed in making the world “safe” for the proliferation of nuclear-powered submarines in the hands of non-nuclear-weapon states.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (fourth from left), French President Emmanuel Macron (second left) and other officials visit the Australian submarine HMAS Waller in Sydney in May 2018 when France was still planning to sell submarines to Australia. That deal has now been upended by the AUKUS arrangement. (Photo by Brendan Esposito - Pool/Getty Images)A final precedent relates to nuclear security. The Australian project would see the acquisition of HEU by a non-nuclear-weapon state at a time when the United States and others, including Australia, are attempting to minimize global holdings of HEU, including by converting reactors to using low-enriched uranium (LEU) and repatriating HEU to the United States or Russia for disposition. Although the nuclear material in submarine reactors is relatively secure, albeit nonstationary, the use of HEU for naval propulsion by a country that has been HEU free goes against the grain of the impressive efforts in recent years to ensure that nuclear material does not fall into the hands of terrorists or other nonstate actors. Some observers have suggested that Australia use LEU for its submarines, perhaps in collaboration with France, which uses such fuel. This may assuage French fury at the cancellation of its contract to build Australia’s conventional submarines, whose design paradoxically was to be based on French nuclear-powered submarines at Canberra’s insistence. IAEA verification, however, would become more challenging because LEU-fueled submarines, at least those using existing technology, require periodic refueling.

Going Quietly Into the Deep?

Despite an opinion poll indicating immediate domestic support for the AUKUS announcement, there remains significant public skepticism in Australia about the use of nuclear energy for any purpose. It remains to be seen whether this will shift as the 18-month study proceeds, details emerge, and the political, diplomatic, military, economic, nonproliferation, security, and opportunity costs become clearer. Although the opposition Labor Party has felt it politically expedient to support the AUKUS announcement, this is conditional on nonproliferation concerns being assuaged. A general election is due within a year. The Australian nuclear-powered submarines could be destined to go the way of Canada’s. In the meantime, the AUKUS partners need to explain how they propose to deliver the gold standard safeguards, transparency, verification, and accountancy measures they have promised.



1. See Tariq Rauf and Marie-France Desjardins, “Opening Pandora’s Box? Nuclear Powered Submarines and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons,” Aurora Papers, no. 8 (1988).

2. “Joint Leaders Statement on AUKUS,” Prime Minister of Australia, September 10, 2021, https://www.pm.gov.au/media/joint-leaders-statement-aukus.

3. “Message to the Congress Transmitting the Australia-United States Peaceful Nuclear Technology Transfer Agreement,” Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, William J. Clinton, 1999, Vol. 2 (Washington: U.S. Office of the Federal Register, 1999), pp. 1963–1965.

4. See John Carlson, “IAEA Safeguards, the Naval ‘Loophole’ and the AUKUS Proposal,” Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, October 8, 2021, https://vcdnp.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Safeguards-and-naval-fuel-JC-211008.pdf; Laura Rockwood, “Naval Nuclear Propulsion and IAEA Safeguards,” Federation of American Scientists Issue Brief, August 2017, https://uploads.fas.org/media/Naval-Nuclear-Propulsion-and-IAEA-Safeguards.pdf. Francois Murphy, “AUKUS Submarine Deal ‘Very Tricky’ for Nuclear Inspectors—IAEA Chief,” Reuters, September 28, 2021.

Trevor Findlay is a principal fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. His next book, Transforming IAEA Safeguards Culture: The IAEA, Iraq, and the Future of Nonproliferation, will be published in early 2022.

From an Australian perspective, there are lots of questions to be answered about the Australia-UK-U.S. submarine deal.

The Australia-UK-U.S. Submarine Deal: Mitigating Proliferation Concerns

November 2021
By Frank N. von Hippel

On September 15, U.S. President Joe Biden joined UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to announce an Australian-UK-U.S. security pact (AUKUS) under which the United States and the United Kingdom will assist Australia in building at least eight nuclear-powered attack submarines. The purpose is to strengthen the alliance trying to contain a growing Chinese navy. The first submarine is
not expected to be operational before 2040.

Brazil, a non-nuclear-weapon state with a program to develop nuclear-powered attack submarines, plans to power its first submarine with LEU fuel but has not forgone the right to use HEU. Photo from 2019 shows ceremony in Rio de Janeiro celebrating Brazil's French-designed, Brazilian-built Humaita submarine, which runs on diesel-electric propulsion. (Photo by Mauro Pimentel/AFP via Getty Images)The AUKUS countries said that it would take 18 months to work out the specifics of the deal, but obvious candidates for the submarine designs to be provided to Australia are the U.S. Virginia-class attack submarine and the UK Astute-class submarine, in production since 1999 and 2001, respectively.

Both submarine classes are fueled with U.S. weapons-grade uranium enriched to more than 90 percent uranium-235 that was declared excess to weapons needs following the drastic downsizing of the U.S. Cold War nuclear warhead stockpile. Both submarine types have life-of-ship cores, which means they should not have to be refueled during their design lives of approximately three decades.

The deal replaces one that Australia reached with France in 2016 under which Australia would have received 12 French Suffren-class submarines equipped with conventional propulsion rather than the nuclear propulsion used by France. In 2016, Australia did not wish to develop the infrastructure required to supply fuel for a nuclear-powered ship.1 France refuels its nuclear submarines every 10 years.

Life-of-ship cores could enable Australia to avoid having to produce its own nuclear fuel, refuel its submarine reactors, and dispose of the spent fuel. The United States or UK could simply sell Australia the reactor cores and then take them back for disposal when the submarines are decommissioned.

A Troublesome Precedent

The proposed AUKUS submarine plan, however, would set an important precedent of a nuclear-weapon state selling nuclear submarines to a non-weapon state. The use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel makes the AUKUS precedent especially troublesome from a nonproliferation perspective.

HEU can be used directly by nations to make nuclear weapons. It also could be used by terrorists to make a simple gun-type nuclear weapon like the Hiroshima bomb.

Because HEU is so easily weaponized, the United States has spent $2 billion since the September 11 terrorist attacks to eliminate it as a research reactor fuel and replace it with low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel, containing less than 20 percent U-235, which cannot be used to make a nuclear explosive.2 As part of this effort, the United States has converted most of its own research reactors to LEU use and has cleared HEU from 33 of 55 countries down to a level of less than one kilogram, a small fraction of the amount required to make a nuclear weapon.3

At the same time, U.S. and UK naval reactors are the world’s largest consumers of HEU. Annually, about three tons of weapons-grade uranium, enough for more than 100 nuclear weapons, are being fed into their naval reactors. In contrast, Chinese and French submarines are fueled with LEU, while India and Russia are believed to use HEU enriched to 21–45 percent U-235.4 HEU in this enrichment range is considered weapons usable, but has a critical mass much larger than weapons-grade uranium.

The United States and UK should be designing their future naval reactors to use LEU fuel. They certainly should not be setting the precedent of spreading HEU-fueled naval reactors to non-nuclear-weapon states such as Australia, especially when Iran and a few other non-nuclear-weapon countries are considering fielding their own nuclear-fueled submarines. Whether to fuel research reactors or naval reactors, expanding the use of HEU increases the risk of this material being diverted to nuclear weapons use.

Nuclear Submarines and Non-Nuclear-Weapon States

Nuclear-powered attack submarines have been of interest to non-nuclear-weapon states for some time. In the late 1980s, Canada explored buying some from France or the UK to reinforce its sovereignty in its northern waters, but with the end of the Cold War, abandoned the project as too costly.5

Brazil has a program to develop nuclear-powered attack submarines that dates to the 1970s.6 It is learning from France how to build conventional submarines and is assembling a land-based prototype reactor inside a mockup of a hull section of a future nuclear submarine. The Brazilian navy developed and controls Brazil’s uranium-enrichment plants. This was a major proliferation concern for the United States when Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship in 1964–1985 and before it entered a nuclear transparency agreement with Argentina in 1991 and joined the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1998. Brazil plans to fuel its first submarine with LEU, but has not forgone the right to use HEU fuel if that proves advantageous.

In South Korea, President Moon Jae-in and his administration have expressed a sustained interest in developing nuclear-powered submarines.7 The United States has refused to change the two countries’ nuclear cooperation agreement to allow South Korea to enrich uranium. Therefore, South Korea may look to Russia, which has offered Seoul an icebreaker propulsion reactor design that can be fueled with 19.75 percent-enriched LEU.8 Russia’s existing nuclear agreement with South Korea covers only “peaceful uses of atomic energy.”9 If the United States can change its agreement with Australia,10 however, Russia can change its agreement with South Korea.

In the past, Japan has not expressed an interest in nuclear submarines. After the AUKUS deal was announced, however, two of the four candidates for prime minister declared their interest,11 although not Fumio Kishida, who won the Liberal Democratic Party’s support and was sworn in as prime minister in October.

There is also the case of Iran. In 2013, during the hard-line administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran suggested Tehran might require uranium enriched to 45–56 percent U-235 for a nuclear submarine program.12 In April, as U.S.-Iranian negotiations stalled on reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran began producing 60 percent-enriched HEU.13

After the AUKUS deal was announced, two journalists from The New York Times interviewed aides accompanying Iran’s new hard-line foreign minister to the United Nations and reported that the aides noted that HEU “could be used in naval reactors, suggesting they might want to use it for that purpose. And they cited Mr. Biden’s new deal with Australia, which calls for [the United States and the UK] to supply Australia with the technology for nuclear-propelled submarines,” which use HEU.14

HEU and Naval Fuel

The United States and UK are creating a dangerous precedent by proposing to export HEU naval fuel to a non-nuclear-weapon state. Other countries are likely to see the deal as creating a more permissive environment to acquire their own HEU-fueled nuclear submarines and, in the absence of a willing supplier, make HEU fuel themselves as Iran threatens to do. The world does not need HEU in more places and more being produced in more countries.

IrFour torpedo tubes in the bow of a Suffren-class nuclear attack submarine, under construction in north-western France in 2017, during a visit by French Defence Minister Florence Parly and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Australia would have bought 12 Suffrens equipped with conventional propulsion from France under a deal Australia abrogated in favor of buying nuclear submarines from the United Kingdom and the United States. (Photo by Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Imges)onically, the nuclear version of France’s Suffren-class attack submarine, which Australian leadership insisted in 2016 should be converted to diesel-electric power, is fueled with LEU containing an average of only 6 percent U-235.15

To make LEU weapons usable, a country would have to run it through an enrichment plant to produce HEU. In a non-nuclear-weapon state, especially one that has an additional protocol to its safeguard agreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency would have a good chance of detecting such an activity. Therefore, if non-nuclear-weapon states feel they need nuclear submarines and to have their own enrichment plants to fuel them, the fuel should be LEU.


Congressional Interest in LEU Fuel

Since 1994, reducing the risk of proliferation of naval HEU fuel has been the primary driver behind efforts by some members of Congress to require the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Office of Naval Reactors to develop LEU fuel for future U.S. submarine and aircraft carrier propulsion reactors.

As the office has made clear, however, its priority has been to achieve life-of-ship cores. In fact, it believes it has done so for the Virginia-class attack submarine, which began production in 1999, and for the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, the first of which began construction in 2020. The design lives of these submarines are 33 and 42 years, respectively. This means that, after the older classes of U.S. submarines have had their midlife refueling, there will be no need for routine refueling of submarines. Refueling equipment and capabilities will be retained only on a standby basis for core repair or replacement following potential fuel-element failure.

The Office of Naval Reactors’ first report in response to Congressional interest in LEU fuel was in 1995.16 It stated that because the U-235 chain reaction provides almost all of the fission energy from the fuel, if the U-235 were diluted to just below 20 percent U-235, which is the top of the LEU enrichment range, it would be necessary to increase the volume of the core threefold to achieve the same core life. This would require a larger, heavier pressure vessel and a bigger hull.

The Virginia-class attack submarine Minnesota (SSN-783), shown under construction in 2012, is among the class of submarine that could be sold to Australia. (U.S. Navy Photo)For Virginia-class submarines, the Office of Naval Reactors found that a life-of-ship core would require the diameter of the submarine to be increased from 10 to 11 meters. The office did not expect a significant impact on the sizes of the larger ballistic missile submarine and aircraft carrier. If, as reported,17 the SSN(X) next-generation U.S. attack submarines are to have hull diameters significantly larger than the Virginia-class, they too could accommodate larger LEU cores.

In 2012, Congress asked for an update and this time, the response was more encouraging. The Office of Naval Reactors reported it was developing a new higher uranium-density fuel that might not require as large a core volume increase for an LEU life-of-ship core.18 Yet, it was testing the new fuel design with weapons-grade uranium to pack more U-235 into the core and to increase U.S. submarines’ lifetime energy budgets for higher-speed transits across the Pacific Ocean and other uses. The energy requirement for potential LEU cores was therefore a moving target.

Congress asked for a research and development plan for developing and testing the new fuel design with LEU.

The Office of Naval Reactors delivered the outline of a plan in July 2016. The report emphasized that the R&D would cost about $1 billion and take “at least 15 years” and that “success is not assured.” It also said that providing LEU cores for aircraft carriers would cost an additional “several billion dollars,” including the cost of a land-based prototype aircraft carrier propulsion reactor.19 This would be comparable to the cost of an additional nuclear-powered submarine.

The Office of Naval Reactors also asked JASON, an elite technical group of mostly academic consultants for the Department of Defense, the NNSA, and other agencies, to review its proposed program for developing LEU fuel. The JASON report, which was partially declassified three years later was supportive. It emphasized, however, that there is only a limited opportunity to make sure that the follow-on to the Virginia-class submarine, the not-yet-named SSN(X) that is scheduled to be procured starting in the early 2030s,20 will be able to accommodate an LEU core. “If the reactor compartment is not designed to accommodate a life-of-ship LEU core, and if later re-design to accommodate such an LEU core is impractical, then HEU cores will be required for all [SSN(X)s], the last of which will launch in the 2060s. On the other hand, if design parameters and fuel development allow an LEU reactor…then it is possible that the Navy's final HEU core will be built in the 2040s.”21

Unfortunately, the Navy came to oppose even conducting that R&D. The simplest explanation is that the Navy does not view minimizing HEU use as its responsibility. Members of Congress sympathetic to this perspective inserted into the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) the requirement that “the Secretary of Energy and the Secretary of the Navy shall jointly submit to the congressional defense committees the determination of the Secretaries as to whether the United States should continue to pursue research and development of an advanced naval nuclear fuel system based on low-enriched uranium.”

At the beginning of 2018, the Trump administration responded that it saw no benefits to the Navy incurring the cost of shifting to LEU fuel use.22

Despite this opposition, Congress has appropriated funding for Navy LEU fuel development every year since fiscal year 2016, starting at $5 million and rising to $20 million in fiscal year 2021.23 Given the Office of Naval Reactors’ resistance, congressional advocates of LEU fuel for naval reactors shifted the funding for LEU fuel development to the NNSA Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation.

The executive branch, however, has never requested funding for this program. For fiscal year 2022, the House of Representatives voted to appropriate another $20 million, but the Senate Armed Services Committee recommended in the 2022 NDAA a provision that would “prohibit the obligation or expenditure of any fiscal year 2022 funds [by the NNSA] to conduct research and development of an advanced naval nuclear fuel system based on low-enriched uranium unless the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of Energy, and the Secretary of the Navy communicate certain determinations to the congressional defense committees.”24

What Is Next

Recently, a group of nonproliferation experts, including the author, wrote to the Biden administration stressing the importance of designing future U.S. naval reactors to use LEU fuel.25 The AUKUS deal highlights the fact that the United States and UK are undermining the nuclear nonproliferation and anti-terrorism regimes by fueling their naval reactors with weapons-grade uranium. Now they propose to export these reactors to a non-nuclear-weapon state.

If the United States does not switch to using LEU naval fuel by about 2060, when its excess stock of weapons-grade uranium is projected to run out, it will have to restart production of weapons-grade uranium for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

The United States and UK should instead exploit the opportunity created by the furor over the AUKUS deal to commit to design their future naval propulsion reactors to use LEU fuel. They also should use the planned 18-month period of study and evaluation of the technical and policy details of the proposed AUKUS submarine deal to do their utmost to design any submarines built by or leased to Australia to use LEU-fueled propulsion reactors rather than the more problematic HEU-fueled option. Otherwise, the three AUKUS countries, long-time leaders in efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons, may well find themselves on a path that would undermine global nonproliferation norms and long-standing nonproliferation objectives.



1. Malcolm Turnbull, “Address to the National Press Club,” 29 September 2021, https://www.malcolmturnbull.com.au/media/address-to-the-national-press-club-september-2021.

2. U.S. Department of Energy, “Budget & Performance,” https://www.energy.gov/budget-performance (accessed October 22, 2021).

3. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), “NNSA Removes All Highly Enriched Uranium From Nigeria,” December 7, 2018, https://www.energy.gov/nnsa/articles/nnsa-removes-all-highly-enriched-uranium-nigeria.

4. Frank von Hippel, “Banning the Production of Highly Enriched Uranium,” International Panel on Fissile Materials Research Report, no. 15 (March 2016), https://fissilematerials.org/library/rr15.pdf.

5. Adam Lajeunesse, “Sovereignty, Security and the Canadian Nuclear Submarine Program,” Canadian Military Journal, Winter 2007–2008, pp. 74–82.

6. Andrea de Sá, “Brazil’s Nuclear Submarine Program: A Historical Perspective,” Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 22, No. 1 (2015): 3.

7. Jun Ji-hye, “South Korea Moving to Build Nuclear-Powered Submarines,” The Korea Times, September 5, 2017.

8. “Russia May Help South Korea to Build Nuclear Reactor for Maritime Vessels,” Sputnik International, August 7, 2018; Atomenergomash JSC, “Solutions for the Shipbuilding Industry,” n.d., https://aem-group.ru/static/images/buklety/2020/Booklet_sudostroenie_en.pdf.

9. Agreement Between the Government of the Republic of Korea and the Government of the Russian Federation on the Cooperation on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, May 28, 1999, 2396 U.N.T.S. 43273.

10. Agreement Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of Australia Concerning Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy, May 4, 2010, T.I.A.S. no. 10-1222, https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/10-1222-Australia-Atomic-Energy-Peaceful-Uses.pdf.

11. Steven Stashwick, “Japan’s Kono Says He Supports Building Nuclear Submarines,” The Diplomat, September 28, 2021.

12. “Iran May Need Highly Enriched Uranium in Future, Official Says,” Reuters, April 16, 2013.

13. International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Directors, “Verification and Monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran in Light of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015),” GOV/2021/39, September 7, 2021, p. 6.

14. David Sanger, Michael Crowley, and Rick Gladstone, “Rebuking Biden, Iran’s Chief Diplomat Demands More Sanctions Relief,” The New York Times, September 24, 2021.

15. Sébastien Philippe and Frank von Hippel, “The Feasibility of Ending HEU Fuel Use in the U.S. Navy,” Arms Control Today, November 2016, p. 15.

16. Director, Naval Nuclear Propulsion, U.S. Navy, “Report on Use of Low Enriched Uranium in Naval Nuclear Propulsion,” June 1995, https://fissilematerials.org/library/onnp95.pdf.

17. Sam LaGrone, “BWXT CEO: Navy’s Next-Generation SSN(X) Attack Boat Will Build Off Columbia Class,” USNI News, November 2, 2020, https://news.usni.org/2020/11/02/bwxt-ceo-navys-next-generation-ssnx-attack-boat-will-build-off-columbia-class.

18. Office of Naval Reactors, U.S. Department of Energy, “Report on Low Enriched Uranium for Naval Reactor Cores: Report to Congress,” January 2014.

19. NNSA, “Conceptual Research and Development Plan for Low-Enriched Uranium Naval Fuel: Report to Congress,” July 2016.

20. Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Next-Generation Attack Submarine (SSN[X]) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service In Focus, IF11826, September 15, 2021.

21. JASON, “Low-Enriched Uranium for Potential Naval Nuclear Propulsion Applications,” JSR-16-Task-013 (November 2016), https://irp.fas.org/agency/dod/jason/leu-naval.pdf (declassified portions).

22. Richard V. Spencer and Rick Perry to Deb Fischer, March 25, 2018, https://fissilematerials.org/library/usn18b.pdf. The same letter went out to the ranking Democratic senator and to the chair and ranking member of the counterpart House of Representatives subcommittee.

23. “Navy LEU Fuel R&D,” Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project, January 2, 2021, https://sites.utexas.edu/nppp/files/2021/02/Navy-LEU-Fuel-RD-2021-Jan-2.pdf.

24. Senate Committee on Armed Services, National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022, S. Rep. No. 117–39 at 354.

25. Joe Biden from Robert Gallucci et al., “Mitigate the Proliferation Impact of Offering Submarines Fueled With Weapon-Grade-Uranium to a Non-Nuclear-Weapon State by Committing to Design Future US Naval Reactors to Use Low-Enriched-Uranium Fuel,” October 6, 2021, https://sgs.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/2021-10/AUKUS-Letter-2021.pdf.

Frank N. von Hippel is a senior research physicist and professor of public and international affairs emeritus with the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University.

The proposed AUKUS submarine plan would set a precedent of a nuclear-weapon state selling nuclear submarines to a non-weapon state. The use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel is especially troublesome.

Back to the Future: Reviving U.S.-Russian Lab-to-Lab Cooperation

November 2021
By Noah C. Mayhew

An era of remarkable cooperation between two Cold War adversaries started in 1988 with a controlled detonation of a nuclear device at the Nevada Test Site. Teams of U.S. and Soviet scientists looked on, hoping that the heavy instrumentation they had jointly designed would accurately measure the yield of the explosion in support of verification of the 1974 Threshold Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.1 The exercise, known as the Joint Verification Experiment, was a success. It was also the first concrete manifestation of official laboratory-to-laboratory cooperation on nuclear treaty verification between the two nuclear superpowers.

A controlled nuclear test and a joint verification experiment between U.S. and Soviet scientists at this test site in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, in 1988 and a similar exercise at the Nevada Test Site in the United States opened the door to decades of laboratory-to-laboratory cooperation between the two nuclear superpowers.  (Photo by TASS via Getty Images)This exercise and an analogous test at the Semipalatinsk site in Kazakhstan four weeks later would open the door to decades of intensive collaboration between U.S. and Soviet scientists, and later Russian scientists, on reducing the legacy nuclear dangers born of the Cold War. During this unprecedented period of cooperation, lab-to-lab projects became a constructive tool in the bilateral diplomatic tool belt. They transformed the old adage “trust but verify” into “trust and benefit” and provided a parallel track for advancing mutual security alongside traditional governmental diplomatic channels.

Due to the serious downturn in U.S.-Russian relations in the last decade, however, lab-to-lab cooperation has all but disappeared. A crushing blow came in 2016 when Russia, under the pressure of intensifying U.S. sanctions, suspended a 2013 agreement on scientific cooperation that built on the landmark 1992 Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program.2

That history is relevant now as the United States and Russia pursue strategic stability talks at a moment of intense animosity and distrust. The summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in June opened a window to begin to stabilize the bilateral relationship; reviving lab-to-lab cooperation could be a relatively easy first step on that difficult path.

The two leaders articulated a clear-eyed vision of their national priorities and met without any pretense that the summit would be, as Biden put it, a “kumbaya moment.” The outcome was modest: an agreement to launch a series of talks on strategic stability that will be “deliberate and robust” and will seek to “lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures.”3

With no treaty yet lined up to replace the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and two other treaties—the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty, which were undermined by the withdrawal of Washington and Moscow—U.S.-Russian relations are at a crossroads, and success at these talks is sorely needed. If the dialogue, which started in July and September, devolves into toxic accusations, bilateral relations would become even more hostile and could result in New START expiring in 2026 with nothing to replace it.

On the other hand, productive talks could advance relative stability and predictability in the U.S.-Russian security domain by facilitating new treaties, a reduction in deployed and maybe nondeployed nuclear weapons, and perhaps further cuts in fissile material stockpiles. Without a doubt, any agreement with a realistic chance of entering into force requires verification and a mechanism to resolve disputes. These components are no panacea—they did not save the INF Treaty, for example—but without them, no agreement is possible at all.

As the two sides move to discuss verification, they need to consider the rich history in which the U.S. and Russian national laboratories worked together on technical solutions to one of the core challenges of any arms control agreement: verifying that both sides are adhering to their commitments. Reviving and expanding formal lab-to-lab cooperation and technical cooperation between the national academies of sciences would be an easy way for the White House and the Kremlin to test their commitments to ensuring that strategic stability talks make progress.

The Urgency

Success will depend heavily on the confluence of political will and technical verification capability. As political will can be fleeting, cooperation at the technical level needs to be put in place to support the critical verification aspects of a potential agreement. Commencing formal lab-to-lab cooperation on nuclear verification now will make it more likely that a potential agreement can be operationalized immediately.

Past arms control agreements, including New START, have been verified through on-site inspections, notifications on the movements and status of nuclear armaments subject to the agreement, and data exchanges, including on telemetry information related to intercontinental ballistic missile and submarine-launched ballistic missile launches. Today, the nuclear arms control community is facing new challenges in verification, and emerging technologies could help address them.

For instance, it may be desirable to use remote sensing or monitoring technology, paired with jointly trained machine-learning algorithms to augment the work done by inspectors. This could increase confidence in implementing an agreement at a time when trust is virtually nonexistent. Given the U.S. intelligence community reports of rising Russian cyberattacks against the United States, joint development of such a tool could be a useful way to shield a future agreement from accusations of cheating or more efficiently deal with them should they arise.

If lab-to-lab cooperation is not prioritized early, it may lead to a situation where political will to conclude an agreement will not be matched by the technical capability to verify it. As demonstrated by the demise of the Trilateral Initiative, which was envisioned by the United States, Russia, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to remove excess fissile material from weapons programs and place it under IAEA safeguards without exposing proliferation-sensitive information, the technical capability often takes longer to develop and authenticate than the political will lasts.4

The initiative was active from 1996 until 2002. Although U.S. and Russian scientists continued to jointly develop the technical aspects of verification after the project ended, they did not demonstrate a prototype that would satisfy U.S. and Russian security officials until 2010, long after the political will to implement the initiative had dissipated.5

The Benefit

Lab-to-lab and other technical cooperation, such as through the national academies of science, do not just help avoid pitfalls in treaty verification. Research into new and emerging technologies could be used to strengthen a verification regime, perhaps by identifying options to verify provisions that once were considered unverifiable. Verification is about the balance between transparency and secrecy. Each side must disclose enough information to ensure effective verification but not more than is absolutely needed. New technologies can expand options available to negotiators as they search for that balance.

As they are developed and authenticated, new approaches could include machine learning to better analyze large data sets and enhanced use of satellite imagery. Utilizing these technologies would not come without challenges. Machine-learning algorithms require extensive development before deployment, and their application would likely be limited to open-source data. They would not replace on-site inspections as both sides would surely wish to keep their own “boots on the ground,” but they may provide an extra layer of confidence that both sides are adhering to an agreement. They could also enable a jointly managed technical basis for addressing potential discrepancies or suspicious activities should they arise.

Similarly, satellite imagery is already used as national technical means, but the quality is much higher than in the past and can now provide more data. If used for treaty verification, however, more work will need to be done to ensure mutual access to data from satellite imagery and to assure both countries that no one has tampered with the data.

Another possibility for cooperation is distributed ledger technology (DLT), commonly known as blockchain, which is used to establish a digital, cryptographically verified, tamper-evident, shared ledger that could record data related to arms control verification activities.6 DLT could be used to share data in a more secure way, inspiring confidence that data exchange logs are genuine and have not been altered while avoiding complete disclosure of sensitive data. The tamper-evident feature of the technology is particularly salient, considering the allegations of Russian cyberattacks.

These and other tools are already being researched for application in IAEA safeguards, but could also have applications in arms control verification if the parties to an agreement can authenticate them for use. Emerging technologies cannot replace any existing part of arms control verification, such as on-site inspections or radiation measurements, but they could augment existing capabilities and increase confidence that all parties to an agreement are in compliance.

U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz (L) and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze signed the Joint Verification Experiment Agreement in Moscow in 1988, providing the first opportunity for scientists from the two nuclear superpowers to cooperate on measuring nuclear test yields. (Photo by Stanford University)Revitalized scientific cooperation would also be beneficial in advancing existing techniques, such as radiation measurements using neutron multiplicity counting and high-resolution gamma spectrometry. They have been used for verifying fissile material, including warheads, for decades.7 Could these techniques be used more effectively? Might they be reconfigured to suit new verification challenges? U.S. and Russian scientists have worked together in this domain before and could do so again.

In this regard, scientific cooperation serves not just as a supporting mechanism for treaty negotiations, but also as a mechanism to lay the groundwork for future cooperative endeavors. Over the years, the experience of implementing joint projects provided the United States and Russia a view into each other’s nuclear thinking. They cooperated not just on nuclear safety, security, and other defense-related fields, but also on the fundamental sciences. It proved that cooperation did not threaten national security, but rather strengthened it.

The Challenge

Lab-to-lab cooperation is not an arms control panacea, nor is it as simple as flipping a switch for it to resume. Although immensely beneficial to the United States and Russia in the 1990s and 2000s, such collaboration is very sensitive and requires a level of trust that is now absent in the U.S.-Russian relationship. That is why one of the first tasks of the strategic stability talks must be establishing a minimum level of confidence that would allow scientific cooperation to proceed.

History has proved that such cooperation is possible, and the field of nuclear arms control would be well served to capitalize on the experience of those who have already participated in these activities.

The bilateral relationship is at a critical juncture. If the talks go well, a period of more stable relations could ensue, even as certain tensions persist. If talks do not go well, the already poisonous state of U.S.-Russian relations could worsen.

Both governments must invest now in new confidence- and transparency-building measures to keep their delicate relationship from breaking. As with the nuclear age itself, that starts with cooperation among the scientists and engineers who command the technical nuclear expertise.



1. See Siegfried S. Hecker, ed., Doomed to Cooperate: How American and Russian Scientists Joined Forces to Avert Some of the Greatest Post-Cold War Nuclear Dangers (Los Alamos, NM: Bathtub Row Press, 2016).

2. Government of the Russian Federation, “Suspending the Russian-U.S. Agreement on Cooperation in Nuclear- and Energy-Related Scientific Research and Development,” October 5, 2016, http://government.ru/en/docs/24766/.

3. The White House, “U.S.-Russia Presidential Joint Statement on Strategic Stability,” June 16, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/06/16/u-s-russia-presidential-joint-statement-on-strategic-stability/.

4. Thomas E. Shea and Laura Rockwood, “IAEA Verification of Fissile Material in Support of Nuclear Disarmament,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, May 2015, https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/files/iaeaverification.pdf.

5. Sergey Kondratov et al., “Testing the AVNG,” Los Alamos National Laboratory, LA-UR-10-02626, July 11, 2010.

6. Cindy Vestergaard and Maria Lovely Umayam, “Complementing the Padlock: The Prospect of Blockchain for Strengthening Nuclear Security,” Stimson Center, June 2020, https://www.stimson.org/2020/complementing-the-padlock-the-prospect-of-blockchain-for-strengthening-nuclear-security/.

7. Edward M. Ifft, “Verifying Nuclear Arms Control and Disarmament,” in Verification Yearbook 2001, n.d., https://www.vertic.org/media/Archived_Publications/Yearbooks/2001/VY01_Ifft.pdf.

Noah C. Mayhew is a research associate at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation focusing on nuclear non-proliferation, safeguards and verification, arms control, and U.S.–Russian relations. He is a commissioner on the trilateral Young Deep Cuts Commission and the co-chair of the Emerging Voices Network’s nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty Working Group.

Scientific cooperation could offer a relatively easy way to begin stabilizing troubled ties.


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